I remember well the day that Moshe Katsav was elected president. It was one of the most amusing lunches I ever had in the Knesset canteen. The place was more like a cafe or pub outside a soccer stadium after the home team had been trounced by an underdog visitor.
Labor was in power and its candidate, the eternal Shimon Peres, seemed to be a shoo-in. But then, after the first round of voting, when the two candidates emerged tied in the secret ballot, it all turned around, and Katsav won in the second round. Despite the secrecy, it was clear what had happened. Shas had transferred its votes, promised originally to the hapless Peres. Nominally, this was a victory for Ariel Sharon's Likud, then in opposition. And party members were suitably elated, but the real jubilation was that of the Shas members and functionaries who streamed into the canteen to celebrate and crow in the face of crestfallen Laborites, as if Katsav had been their candidate all along.
What had happened behind the scenes was even more interesting. Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, had been for Peres until the morning of the vote. The two octogenarians had been close for many years, with Peres loyally visiting Rabbi Yosef every Sukkot and Pesach. Yosef had little if any respect for Katsav and assured his old friend that he had all of Shas' 17 votes. But in the weeks before the election, Yosef and the Shas MKs were bombarded by delegations of rabbis of every stripe trying to persuade them to vote for Katsav, who as a politician had cultivated ties with the courts of local rabbinical power brokers. "How can you prefer the secular Peres" they asked, "to Katsav, who sent all his children to study in religious schools and yeshivas?"
Yosef did not budge. He had given his word. But as the day of the vote grew close, those around him warned that some of the party's MKs might use the secret ballot to defy orders, and everyone would know afterward that Shas had not been entirely loyal. The venerable rabbi, who not long ago had booted out the party's super-popular leader, Aryeh Deri, could not afford at that stage to open arift in the ranks. The pressure forced the rabbi to hedge his bet and allow part of the Knesset faction to vote Katsav.
After the first-round tie, the remaining MKs were told to go with the winner. I'm not claiming for one minute that the rabbis lobbying on Katsav's behalf had any knowledge that their candidate was an habitual sexual predator, as the Tel Aviv District Court ruled yesterday, but meddling by rabbis seems to bring about the most awful results.
By every parameter, Shimon Peres was a far more worthy candidate for the mainly ceremonial role of president than Katsav, even if the latter had never laid a hand on one of his female employees. But the rabbis were determined to have it their way. Just look at what a fine president Peres turned out to be when he was finally elected to the post, probably the only official representative Israel can really be proud of. And compare that to the national shame of having a head of state convicted of rape and indecent acts.
Recent weeks has given us other prime examples of the disastrous results of rabbinical interference. Can you imagine the agony and suffering that the patients, anxiously waiting on the transplant list, and their families went through on Tuesday when they were first told that suitable organs were available, due to the fatal accident of former Israel football captain and Liverpool defender Avi Cohen - only to be told later that the family had rescinded their agreement to the donation? The secular Cohen was a proud carrier of an organ donor card. He had even tried to get all the footballers in Israel to sign one. His family had also automatically agreed to the donation the moment they were informed that their loved one was brain dead. But then came the rabbinical steamroller. All manner of rabbis and kabbalists who had flocked to Ichilov Hospital to share the limelight and offer solace to the family began promising visions of a speedy recovery and ominous threats that harvesting his organs while his heart was still beating was tantamount to murder. The family, despite the entreaties of those who knew Avi best, caved in to the pressure. And who can blame them?
Avi Cohen is now dead and buried and those whose lives could have been greatly improved, even saved, must go on waiting for another potential donor and hoping the rabbis don't get to the family first.
There is a death waiting to happen - the first vigilante murder of a foreign worker in one of the poorer neighborhoods, or of a young Israeli Arab dating a Jewish girl. The rabbis' letter against renting flats to Arabs and their incitement against foreign workers has unleashed ugly demonstrations in Safed, Tel Aviv and Bat Yam. This week we had the rebbetzin's racist letter warning the innocent girls of Israel about duplicitous Arabs who will use false names and pretenses to steal them away to their villages, where they will suffer a life of abuse and deprivation. Of course, those issuing such warnings will deny any connection to the inevitable bloodshed.
Often, those who are most easily swayed by meddling rabbis are not mitzvah-observant themselves. Many religious Israelis know when to ask advice of rabbis; when not to; and which spiritual leaders to choose. They also carry organ donor cards, vote according to their conscience and better judgment and, while not being in favor of intermarriage, would never dream of engaging in any racist pursuit. The rabbis tend to prey on the fears and prejudices of the poor, the disadvantaged and the distressed. But why should we accuse the rabbis? After all, they are acting upon what they truly believe in. The real blame goes to a weak society and ineffectual leaders who allow them to wield such power.
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